Studying for Memory & Comprehension
Many classes require you to memorize and recall large amounts of information learned throughout the semester. You may have to recite a list of vocabulary words, use a set of equations on an exam, or remember a large amount of concepts to write an in-class essay. Recalling information is one of the most important academic skills and will be needed in almost all of your university classes. This guide helps you tackle memorizing and retaining large amounts of information through science-backed study methods and strategies.
Why Studying Matters
Studying is the process of reviewing and reengaging with material to prepare for an exam or build understanding. Some methods of studying work better than others; for example, cramming before an exam, although effective in the short term, is not a sustainable study practice. If you are cramming just before an exam, you will most likely remember everything for the test, but not be able to recall that information later on. Cramming is not a sustainable study strategy for cumulative classes such as those in the sciences, languages, and histories. Instead, shifting your study practices to focus on repeated engagement with material over time is more beneficial in the long-term. Science has shown that the stimulus of repetitive interaction with material reduces the amount of information you forget (Wittman). The amount of repetition needed to remember lessens over time as your brain practices retrieving and recalling information. The diagram below shows how repeated engagement allows for the most effective long term memorization of the information you are learning.
How to Study: Retrieval and active recall
What is retrieval practice?
Studying allows you to engage with the material you have learned and commit it to memory. One of the best ways to study information is through retrieval practice, the process of actively recalling information you have learned from memory first, then consulting your notes after to see areas you forgot or should focus more attention on (Cornell).
Why retrieval works
Writing down what you can recall in flow charts or connective visualizations helps you construct meaning from what you have learned and make connections to lectures, form examples, and regulate your own learning (Davis, 2007). Active recall is more effective than passive recall, which includes activities like reading your notes or lecture slides, because it challenges your brain to remember and store the information on its own.
How to use retrieval practice and active recall
Examples of active recall include creating a mind map of terms and ideas, quizzing yourself with flashcards, and writing study guides in your own words.
Practice the application of material
To prepare for an exam, you should practice the skills that will be used during that exam through self testing (Cornell). For example, if your exam consists of writing short essay responses, practice writing about different topics from class. You can even create your own practice exam questions and answer them. Many forms of studying work to develop your conceptual understanding of material, but you must be able to apply that understanding on a test or exam. Creating and solving multiple choice questions, practice problems, and short answer questions helps you practice recalling and applying information learned in class.
Mix up your study method!
Interacting with the material you need to remember in multiple ways helps your brain build connections between ideas and store the information in various ways. Below are different ways to interact with material.
Create a mind map to connect the ideas you have learned. You can map how vocab words relate to one another or all of the properties of a chemical substance. Be creative and create new connections! Digital mind map applications include mindmeister and inkflow.
Speaking your ideas out loud can help you see where your understanding is strongest and what areas you should study more. Teaching is one of the most effective ways of learning because it requires you to elaborate on the topic and explain it in simple terms. Teach one of your friends or classmates about the material you are working to understand and memorize. Both of you will learn something!
Create flashcards for vocab words, equations, and general concepts. Quiz yourself, or a friend, to recall the information on each card. Quizlet and Anki are great online alternatives to paper flashcards.
Make mnemonic devices to remember information, such as Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally to remember the mathematical operation orders, and practice saying them to yourself.
Get creative and draw out your vocab words, terms, and key concepts from class! Visualizing information helps reimagine the ideas you have learned in new ways.
Linearizing the information you have learned can show how one event is connected to another. Creating timelines helps organize and frame the information you have to remember for a class.
Get creative! Make a zine covering the topics, terms, and key points from a unit of your class. This is the perfect opportunity to explore how creativity and art can help you relate and understand what you are learning in your classes!
Time Management & Studying
Effective studying requires consistent practice over time; committing a certain amount of time per day or per week to study builds better study habits and improves retention. Having good time management skills is crucial for ensuring you have enough time to study and do other assignments, as well as time to take care of yourself! Check out the CEP’s Time Management Resources for more skills and strategies. Creating a plan before you begin to study helps set you up for success and reach your studying goals. A good study session has a time limit, goal, and plan of action for what and how to study. Download a pdf of our study plan template and sample. Below is a structure for setting up a study session.
Set a time
Studying for hours on end is exhausting; set manageable time goals for each study session. A study session can range from 30 minutes to a few hours depending on what and how you are studying.
Set a goal
Setting a manageable goal for each study session helps you feel accomplished and can help chip away when you need to study large amounts of information. For example, if you are going to take a test on the properties of the periodic table, focussing a study session on just one family helps you work towards your larger study goal in a productive and manageable way. Or, if you are studying for a physics exam, working through one chapter’s concepts and materials is a good goal for a single study session.
Manage other assignments and tasks
If day-to-day assignments such as problem sets and readings dominate your schedule, then there is no time left to prepare properly for the bigger exams and projects (Newport 2007). You want to be quick and efficient with assignments to make sure you have time to study or prepare for larger assignments. For readings, definitely check out our resource Tackling Large Readings and Active Reading Strategies. For problem sets, work it out in a group. Working in groups can drastically cut the time required to finish a really hard problem set (Newport 2007). Going to office hours is also a good idea since TAs can help you through difficult concepts, saving you more time.
Avoid the day-before syndrome (Newport 2007). Work on everything little by little and complete it a few days before its due date so you have time to comprehend the assignment.
Creating Sustainable Study Habits
Prioritizing self care is important for creating a good balance between life and school. If you practice self care, you will be able to study more impactfully!
Like any other muscle, your brain needs fuel to work. Eating well and enough is important for cognitive function. Diets full of fruits, vegetables, and fatty acids help the brain operate at its highest level of performance (Frontiers). Avoiding excessive caffeine intake is also important for preventing dehydration and lack of focus.
You are more able to remain focused and present when studying if you are well rested. Additionally, our brains process information while we sleep, so getting a full night of rest can help your ability to recall information the next day.
Staying active reduces stress and anxiety while boosting cognitive performance (CDC). Getting your body moving both during a study session and outside of studying can help you focus and feel better when studying.
Study when you are most present (Joyce). If you are falling asleep or see that you aren’t absorbing information as you would like, take a break. Taking a short nap, a meal break, or a shower is a great way to regroup and take care of yourself. Breaks are also important for helping your brain make connections and retain what you may have just read or learned (NIH, 2021), but it’s worth keeping in mind that scrolling through social media may not actually give you a mental break (Polish, 2019). Finally, remember, your worth is not based on your productivity. Taking time to have fun and see your friends is just as important as studying.
Bibliography & Additional Sources
Cornell University: The Learning Strategies Center. (n.d.). Effective Study Strategies. https://lsc.cornell.edu/how-to-study/studying-for-and-taking-exams/effective-study-strategies/
Joyce University of Nursing and Health Sciences. (2022, March 24). 10 Proven Study Tips to Retain Information. ASN Blog. https://www.joyce.edu/blog/study-tips-to-retain-information/
National Institutes of Health. (2021, June 8). Study shows how taking short breaks may help our brains learn new skills. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/study-shows-how-taking-short-breaks-may-help-our-brains-learn-new-skills
Newport, C. (2007). How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less. Three Rivers Press.
Polish, J. (2019). A New Study Says Scrolling Through Social Media Doesn’t Actually Give You A Mental Break. https://www.bustle.com/p/taking-a-break-by-looking-at-social-media-doesnt-help-your-mind-reset-a-new-study-says-18682642
Wittman, J. (n.d.). The Forgetting Curve. CSU Stanislaus. https://www.csustan.edu/sites/defauClt/files/groups/Writing%20Program/forgetting_curve.pdf